The claim that Eskimos have 50 words for snow may be apocryphal, but it neatly illustrates the truism that our vocabulary becomes more extensive and nuanced for phenomena we encounter frequently.
The bog-standard job of the 20th century was formal, full-time and permanent. Recently the lexicon for other kinds of jobs has expanded. Work can be temporary, fixed-term, seasonal, project-based, part-time, on a zero-hours contract, casual, agency, freelance, peripheral, contingent, external, non-standard, atypical, platform-based, outsourced, sub-contracted, informal, undeclared, insecure, marginal or precarious.
“Self-entrepreneurs” now do “Uber-jobs” – a term that arose (mimicking the earlier pejorative term “McJobs” for low pay/quality work) to describe the use of workers who are technically self-employed in the gig economy. The atypical job is no longer quite so atypical. Insecure work has become an important phenomenon.
Employment is a field where predictions of the future have been reliable, because the trends have been clear for some time now that growth in insecure employment has reached a point to become a subject of study. In the 1990s, management guru Charles Handy talked about the organisation of the future having a clover leaf design, with three kinds of human resource: full-time employees, casual staff and outsourced workers.
This threefold division was echoed in economist Will Hutton’s darker prediction of a society in which 30% of people were disadvantaged and marginalised, 30% led insecure lives and 40% were privileged.
Careers in the start of the 21st century, we were told, would become “boundaryless” (hopping from project to project, not limited to one organisation), “portfolio” (multiple parallel jobs with multiple employers), and “protean” (with shapeshifting workers reinventing themselves as required).
Careers experts began to argue that the workers of the future needed to be ultra-flexible. Say goodbye to the job for life. Learn career management skills to dance nimbly to the tune of the new labour market. But this prescribed wisdom is problematic for four reasons.
First, job insecurity is has always existed; it was once the historical norm. The construction industry has always been project-based and seasonal like agriculture; seafarers were traditionally hired for a voyage. The entertainment industry was literally the “gig economy”. These are among the industries that routinely discarded workers when the job was done.
What is new is the extension of insecure work into industries where it was not previously common. This has been facilitated by new technology and the widespread use of contractual arrangements that seek to limit workers’ rights.